When I think about the mentors I’ve had over the course of my professional life, I feel very fortunate. Each has been unique, injecting his or her thoughts, experiences, and personal style into our mentoring relationship. As I reflect on time spent talking with, listening to, or emailing with each of my mentors, it seems like the role of mentor came quite naturally to them, an effortless act that engendered feelings of respect and gratitude on my part. So what’s the secret? How can we take full advantage of the mentoring relationships we are currently in, either as mentor or trainee? I have culled information from a variety of sources cited below to assist you in building and maintaining strong mentoring relationships throughout your career.
As a trainee:
Assume primary responsibility for your own career development.
This is critical, as I have met a few trainees who have been unsuccessful at forging strong mentoring bonds because of an expectation that “other people should be looking out for me.” Take charge of your own career, always.
Communicate your goals often—both formally and informally.
Again, this is your responsibility. Trainees who have shared their professional goals with their mentors early on in their research careers have enjoyed more satisfaction long-term than those who have not.
Assume progressive responsibility and management of your research.
If your current PI serves as a mentor, demonstrate your willingness to take on new projects or learn new skills, with a view to enhancing your own career development and assisting with the growth of your PI/mentor’s lab.
Seek feedback on your performance regularly.
Think about identifying mentors who might be best for providing feedback in a particular area. Do you know of scientists who are great at mentoring others? Building research teams? Those whose strengths lie in editing? How about someone who approaches research problems creatively? Asking for feedback from people who are gifted in a particular area will help you grow as a professional.
As a mentor:
If you are mentoring an undergraduate, graduate student, or technician in the lab, try to listen actively to what the trainee is sharing, rather than jumping in and trying to offer a solution immediately.
Decide on place, time, and frequency of meetings with your trainee and stick to this schedule. Checking in often and keeping lines of communication open will strengthen any professional relationship.
Be clear about your expectations.
Work with each individual you are mentoring to set specific goals. This might include publishing goals, skill development, or a goal related to the job search. Let the conversation be driven by the trainee you are mentoring. Some questions you might ask are “What skills would you like to develop?” “How can you make this happen?” “How will you measure progress in this area?” “How can I facilitate this process?” Have trainees explain projects back to you, or write a paragraph describing a given project and their role in it.
Keep trainees motivated.
Encourage strategic thinking and creativity in your trainee. If feedback is needed, offer criticism in a way that doesn’t shame or discourage your trainee. Encourage your trainee to learn new skills. Provide networking opportunities by introducing your trainees to other scientists while at professional meetings, or on campus in different institutes or departments.
Stay in touch.
Keep in touch with those you are mentoring and those who are mentoring you. The time you invest in these relationships now will pay dividends both now and in the future.
Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and Their Mentors, Association of American Medical Colleges
Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine